Visiting the South Pacific...
Via the Hollywood Bowl
It was hot. I was sitting under an umbrella that the cabana boys had set up to keep the sun from giving me yet more freckles. The breeze was gently blowing, moving the palm fronds and keeping me cool. Twenty feet away, Brian Stokes Mitchell was singing...to me…. and I was thinking…how lucky am I?
I wasn't lounging in Fiji or Tahiti, and yet I was being transported to the South Pacific -- well actually to a rehearsal of South Pacific on stage at the Hollywood Bowl.
The "cabana boys" were what Stage Manager and USITT member Meredith Greenberg affectionately called the terrific IATSE prop crew, and okay, Brian Stokes Mitchell wasn't singing to me, he was singing to Reba McEntire. But still, how fun is this?
This August I had the good fortune to be the associate lighting designer to my husband, lighting designer Tom Ruzika, on the design of the Los Angeles Philharmonic production. Directed by the incredibly talented David Lee (nine-time Emmy Award winning director, creator of Wings and Frasier) with conductor and musical director, the amazing Paul Gemignani (over 38 Broadway and West End shows) and choreographer Mark Esposito (Radio City Rockettes/16 Broadway and national tours), this was one first-class production.
And there I was, figuring out followspot cues for Reba and Stokes, plus other marvelous performers -- Michael McKean from This is Spinal Tap, Armelia McQueen from Disney's Adventures in Wonderland, Conrad John Schuck from the movie M*A*S*H, and so many other talented actors -- in the Hollywood Bowl!
Since 1922, the LA Philharmonic has presented its summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. Working at the historic Hollywood Bowl is an unforgettable experience. Owned by the County of Los Angeles, the Bowl and surrounding grounds is a county park. Who knew? Since it is park, it is always open to anyone day and night (except during closed rehearsals and performances). There are areas that are restricted, and the security guards on duty keep people from stealing the chairs and from going onto the stage.
Late one late night after a concert, while Tom and the Bowl's moving light operator, Gil, were setting focus points, I observed a gentleman walking his two dogs while emptying unfinished wine bottles previously enjoyed by the patrons who had dined at the Bowl that evening. Apparently he's a regular.
Toward the back of the nearly 18,000-seat Bowl, an amorous couple was "enjoying" each other. Joggers intent on getting their exercise were running up and down the numerous stairs; just like any other park. Right?
Right. Except this park happened to have a crew of about 30 IATSE members working on the world-famous Hollywood Bowl stage.
During the five-month season at the Bowl, the fabulous full-time IATSE crew work so many hours that, if they choose, they wouldn't have to work for the rest of the year. Dave, the master carpenter and union steward, is a surfer who lives in Hawaii. He runs his crew in a relaxed yet controlled manner. You can just see him on a surfboard. Master Electrician Bob is a long-time union member who had worked in many theatres, when years ago he did a job at the Bowl and never left. Mike, Mark, Steve, and Tarzan were our first rate spot operators. You couldn't ask for better crew.
These gentlemen, plus "Backstage Goddess" Ellen, Director of Presentations Steve Linder, and Operations Manager Brian Grohl, are just a few of the many people who help make the Bowl experience so special.
The AEA stage managers for South Pacific are excellent SMs and great fun! Meredith, Stacy Wilson, Barbara Donner, and PA Amy have worked together for several summers; they call their experiences at the Bowl "Summer Camp." During the year, they each work professionally in opera, theatre, and education, which keeps them working inside, so what a joy to be able to work outside with such a great crew. It is as fun as summer camp!
The many performances at the Bowl make the rehearsal schedule, well, different. Monday and Wednesday, the cast rehearsed on stage from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. During that time, I watched for spot cues and clarified the lighting cues for Meredith. Tom and the ever-present, hard working board operators, Gil and Andy, were sequestered away in the air conditioned light booth, building light cues in broad daylight (with the help of the visualizer, which allows you to see the color and position of the automated lights on the monitor).
On Monday and Wednesday evenings, around 10 p.m., Tom, assistant John Bass, and the crew spent an hour and a half focusing and checking out the colors created by the LED lights illuminating the trademark rings while the stage crew set up for the next day's LA Philharmonic rehearsal and performance.
On Wednesday evening, there was a 7 p.m. run through with the LA Philharmonic and, of course, the orchestra was magnificent. During the rehearsal, Meredith called the cues and Tom got to actually see the lights he had programmed during the previous days. (This was exciting. Last summer when he designed Sunset Blvd., everything happened in one day; he and the board ops programmed the show during the day. That night, the show opened and he got to see the lighting for the first time, along with thousands of patrons!). So it was a luxury to see the light cues before the audience did and to have time after the rehearsal to fine-tune them.
Our dress was held at 10 a.m. on the day of opening (Friday). Anyone can walk in and watch the dress rehearsals… for free. Rock groups and special events are closed, but all the Philharmonic rehearsals are open. About 350 to 400 attended (including regulars who attend every dress rehearsal) wearing hats or holding umbrellas to ward off the rays of the hot sun while watching the cast perform for the first time in their fun WWII style costumes designed by Alex Jaeger.
Some early risers arrived before 8 a.m., positioned themselves in the front boxes and had a lovely breakfast. Meredith and I sat under our umbrellas with the terrific spot operators. They watched the show and listened to Meredith call their cues, so they would know what they were doing that evening.
That night for the opening, I sat in the light booth. The air-conditioned, soundproof booth was cool and quiet and we were separated from the thousands of people outside. The stage looked beautiful. Scenic Designer Evan Bartoletti had transformed the Bowl into an island paradise by artfully using live palm trees, flowers, and other tropical plants. The lighting was colorful and gorgeous.
I left the booth to feel the soft night air on my face and to listen to Brian Stokes Mitchell sing… to me. Once again, I was taken away to the South Pacific…via the Hollywood Bowl. How lucky am I?
A preset cue for South Pacific plays at the Hollywood Bowl as the crowd awaits the beginning of the performance.